Unexpected, Wonderful News from the Minnesota Orchestra

I’ve just received wonderful news—wonderful news that I would never have thought possible two years ago, and I can scarcely believe even now.

Good news regarding the Minnesota Orchestra.

The Orchestra held its annual meeting this afternoon here in Minneapolis, where it reported on the financial and artistic successes of the last year. As would be expected at such an event, there were reports of exceptional concerts, mentions of all the famous performers who had graced the stage, and of course confirmation that the organization ended the year in a strong financial position.

But the exciting news goes beyond these achievements, as notable as they were.

Today we were treated to powerful, undeniable proof that showed how thoroughly the organization has healed from the disastrous labor dispute that nearly ripped it apart.

And seeing this proof positive of how far the organization has come, and the spirit of generosity and cooperation that is now filling Orchestra Hall… well, it all but moved me to tears.

To make sense of what happened, let me go back to the beginning to provide a bit of context—particularly for those readers who have come to my blog relatively recently.

* * *

Beginning in October 2012, the Minnesota Orchestra was wracked by one of the longest, ugliest labor disputes to ever befall an American arts organization. For those who didn’t live through it, I don’t know that you can understand the full magnitude of the disaster, which centered around a 16-month lockout of the musicians that lasted until January 2014. The dispute swept nearly every major player in the state into its maw, including the region’s most influential business leaders, legendary patrons of the arts, Minnesota’s governor (as well as a former governor), the City of Minneapolis, local media, and the state legislature.

It was an unprecedented clash of the titans. And it was ugly. (The full scope of the dispute is chronicled in excruciating detail here on my blog.)

But there were a few unexpected glimmers of light. One of the most remarkable results of the lockout was that it transformed how the community viewed the Orchestra, and understood its value. Before the lockout, many of us (myself included) tended to take it for granted. It was there, it was great, we liked having an orchestra and all… but the Minnesota Orchestra was a bit of an abstraction. Too many people appreciated the Orchestra, but didn’t necessarily love the Orchestra.

With the lockout, that all changed.

From the community perspective, the lockout sparked intense conversations about the role of the Orchestra in the community, the role of classical music in the community, and the importance of the arts in the community. But more, there was a complete recalibration about our role in all this; we stopped being passive arts consumers and began to take a more active part in its creation and maintenance. Collectively, we took action. Community members stepped forward with proposals to end the lockout. Audience advocacy groups sprouted up. People dragged friends and relatives to concerts, refusing to take no for an answer.

Once activated, we never stood down—we have remained actively engaged ever since.

But it wasn’t just the audience members that were impacted like this. Right from the start, the locked-out musicians began having their own conversations about the importance of music in the community, and the long-term health of classical music generally.

And they, too, took action.

In February 2013, the musicians formed their own 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians (MOM). Its mission was to present their own artist-driven concerts out in the community, and to take part in educational engagement activities in a way that made use of their entire complement—not just a few hand-chosen musicians, but the entire orchestra as an orchestra. This was a return to their roots, a way to engage the community at a fundamental level and make the case for the need of a world-class orchestra. The concerts were hugely popular—often selling out in hours—but I suspect the initiatives that had the largest impact were the musicians’ self-produced school concerts, which gave many local students their first up-close-and-personal experience with a live symphony orchestra.

The lockout ended in January 2014, and everyone girded themselves for a long period of rebuilding. Although the worst was over, this was still a very delicate time. There was a steely tension around Orchestra Hall, and while people were trying to move forward with smiles on their faces, it was clear that the wounds from the lockout were still fresh… and deep.

But there was a change in the air. Gordon Sprenger came on as the new Board Chair (“Gordy,” as he was called), and he was determined to bring the board, musicians, administration, and the community together to rebuild the organization… and suddenly little sprouts of hope began to appear. Board member Karen Himle led a joint task force with members drawn from the Orchestra’s many stakeholders about how everyone could collectively work together toward shared success. Kevin Smith came on as the Minnesota Orchestra’s interim, and ultimately permanent President and CEO. Osmo Vänskä was invited back as Music Director. The healing was gradual, but very real. All of us could feel it.

And as the new fiscal year started in September 2014, things completely took off.

Against all odds, the Orchestra leaped from triumph to triumph. The artistry was back in spades; but beyond the technical proficiency, there was a new sense of shared emotional connection that gave the music greater depth and meaning. But there was more going on than a parade of exceptional concerts. There were new fundraising initiatives that set high goals, and achieved them. There were educational and community engagement events that brought music to the far corners of the state. There was the renewed invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall and to finish recording the cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. There was a historic tour and cultural exchange to Cuba.

Given the tentative beginnings of 2014, it’s hard to recognize that this was the same ensemble.

But one thing remained. Based on the experiences of the lockout and the events that led up to it, the Orchestra members retained their own 501 (c) (3) organization, the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians. It provided them with a bit of security—it allowed them to ensure that if the Orchestra’s recovery took them in directions they didn’t want to go, they would still be able to produce their own artist-driven concerts focused on the artistry. Plus, they would be able to continue their educational engagement activities, ensuring they could continue their ground-breaking efforts to build the appetite for classical music in the community.

* * *

That brings us to the fantastic news announced at the Orchestra’s annual meeting.

First, the Orchestra announced that the fiscal year was a financial success. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, in that the Orchestra had already announced unofficially that it had ended the year in the black. Today’s announcement confirmed those earlier reports, and provided a few key details:

Orchestra Board Chair Warren Mack also announced at the Annual Meeting that the Orchestra had achieved an operating surplus of $15,000 on a budget of $31.1 million for Fiscal 2015. Contributions for the year totaled $18.1 million from more than 7,000 donors; earned revenue totaled $8.5 million and board designated draws for operations, which were based on a 5 percent draw for operations across all endowments and trusts, totaled $4.5 million. Total investments ended the year at $141 million. The Orchestra preliminarily announced a balanced operating result in September, following the close of its fiscal year.

Welcome news to be sure, but it was only the beginning.

Shortly after the financial report, the musicians made an announcement of their own that stunned the entire room: they were making a $250,000 gift to the Minnesota Orchestra.

This money would be used to create the Bellwether Fund, that would continue the musicians’ aim “to inspire an ever-widening audience to seek a lifelong relationship with great symphonic music” and to use engaging programs to “increase access and deepen connections among musicians, the community and the Minnesota Orchestra.” Some of the initiatives are a continuation of programs developed during the lockout, including “Symphonic Adventures” taking place in area high schools and sensory-friendly performances designed for individuals with disabilities.

The funds will be managed by a committee of musicians, working in partnership with the Orchestra’s administration to ensure continuity of programming.

I don’t know that I can express the magnitude of this move. On the one hand, it shows the musicians are willing to step up to the plate and take on duties beyond simply performing on stage.  More important, it is a vivid testament to how far the organization has come in such a short period of time—a move that embodies the new spirit of collaboration that has re-energized Orchestra Hall. In making the announcement, bass player and MOM President Kate Nettleman said it beautifully:

This gift we make to the Minnesota Orchestra today is a powerful symbol of how, together with the wonderful Orchestra staff and Board of Directors, we are working in a truly collaborative organization. It represents our committed ongoing investment in the mighty Minnesota Orchestra. We are proud of all that the Orchestra has accomplished—collaborating as a unified team, in concert with our greater community—and we know that our Orchestra will continue to shine brightly far into the future.

I’m touched to report that the funds are given in honor of Lee Henderson, who played a key role in ending the lockout and getting the Orchestra on its feet again. As I’ve chronicled on my blog, his love for the Orchestra was deep and personal, and his commitment to music was profound. It was a great loss for the Orchestra and the community as whole that he died suddenly… only days before the Orchestra left for Cuba (he and his family had planned on accompanying the Orchestra). This new fund is an incredible way to honor his commitment to the Orchestra.

But this led to one more bit of wonderful news.

As Kate explained, the $250,000 gift comes not only from the musicians’ personal contributions, but represents the totality of their independently-held assets in MOM, their 501(c)(3) organization. This amount is made up of income earned from their self-produced concerts during the lockout, and, importantly, of donations received from the extraordinary community of supporters.

Again—this is all of their independently-held assets.

And so, in making this gift, the musicians will dissolve their independent organization, MOM, immediately following the filing of required 2015 tax documents.

And just like that, this one last remaining vestige from the lockout has been officially swept away.

I gasped out loud to hear this news.  What an extraordinary vote of confidence in the Orchestra and the direction it’s heading!

In her speech, Kate was clear that the musicians are delighted that their independent organization has become (wonderfully) superfluous.  The educational and artistic initiatives they fought so hard to build over the last few years have been enthusiastically embraced by the Minnesota Orchestra as a whole, and woven into the overall fabric of the organization. Kate also expressed the pride the musicians feel at being able to announce that their school concerts, for example, are being presented not by the musicians, but by the Minnesota Orchestra as a whole.

As she said, the announcement of the Musicians’ gift and the final closure of their independent organization “allows us, together, to acknowledge the painful past of the lockout. But it also grants us the grace of a constructive, collaborative way forward, together, far into the future. It grants us healing.”

I absolutely agree.

All in all, today’s announcement provides several lessons for me—lessons that speak to the end of this particular labor dispute, but also speak to several other labor disputes still going on across the country:

1. Leadership is key. The healing has been made possible because several individuals stepped forward as leaders, and actively shaped the trajectory of the organization. Most obviously, Gordy Sprenger and Warren Mack as board chairmen and Kevin Smith as CEO have led the organization to its current position of strength. They have shaped organizational goals, norms, and expectations, and done so brilliantly. But at the same time, Osmo and Concertmaster Erin Keefe have provided excellent artistic leadership, too. And let us not forget the wonderful leadership from the musicians themselves—they stood up and took charge of their own destiny during the lockout, and have played a critical role in the shaping of the organization’s values and direction ever since the lockout ended. The fantastic results we’re seeing today would not be possible without all these extraordinary leaders helping to shape the organization from the top down. As I currently serve as Board President of the Minnesota Chorale, this lesson resonates strongly with me, and I hope I can in my own way emulate their example.

2. Success is shared. Leaders can’t do it alone. The success the Minnesota Orchestra enjoys today is the product of so many dedicated people, including each and every board member, musician, staff member, and community activist. Without this universe of support, an organization can possibly survive, but it will never truly thrive. Such a universe of support does exist for the Minnesota Orchestra, and its been a profound pleasure to see the organization specifically work to cultivate it.

3. Pride is contagious. One of the key elements of the new Minnesota Orchestra is a collective sense of pride. There is excitement that everyone is a part of the organization, which makes the work to advance its mission all the more energizing. No one is simply in it for an easy pay check—everyone is involved.

4. Stay true to your mission. Pundits warned that the Orchestra—as well as classical music ensembles in general—needed to abandon its emphasis on providing great music and chase a vision of financial sustainability at all costs. Yes, the Orchestra needs to gather and use its financial resources wisely, but it’s important to point out that this new era of prosperity and hope has happened because the Orchestra chose to focus on fulfilling its mission, rather than chasing cash. But in doing so, it actually achieved huge financial success. This only makes sense; people bought tickets and donated money because the Orchestra inspired them. Money is always important, but for a non-profit arts organization, mission is even more important.

5. It gets better. It’s hard to describe just how low everyone felt two years ago. But in an astonishingly short period of time, the Orchestra came roaring back, hitting incredible new heights. This is such a powerful lesson—hard work really can pay off.

* * *

So, my profound congratulations to the Minnesota Orchestra for its year’s worth of success, and its exciting news. In fact, it’s hard to write this without a few tears welling up—tears of gratitude for the stunning achievements and hope for even greater successes yet to come.

Let me share a few final words, made by Kate Nettleman in today’s presentation:

The Minnesota Orchestra today is a place where we all belong. Where we work together as a team to serve as a premier American orchestra that is admired globally. Where we listen as well as we play our music. Where we all, as a community of mighty Minnesotans, develop the values that define who we are in the eyes and ears of the world.

Amen. I couldn’t have said it better myself.




5 thoughts on “Unexpected, Wonderful News from the Minnesota Orchestra

  1. On my Facebook page, I wrote that my “happy tears” say it all. Great article, Scott. I truly do think you’ve shared what feels like a “redemption story.”


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  3. Scott, what at wonderfully written and concise history of the lock-out saga.

    I was deeply involved in the musician’s angst because my son plays in the orchestra. I never lost hope that all would end well, but they did not. I knew that hidden within them, collectively, they had leadership skills, technical skills, writing skills, public relation skills, negotiating skills, etc., to survive. When they produced their own concerts, I knew they were genus. Nonetheless, I had a pit in my stomach the entire time.

    A woman who really knows her music, but a recent resident of the city, expressed surprise at the enthusiasm the audience expresses when the musicians walk on stage. I’m not sure anyone who didn’t live through the lockout can understand why we sometimes act like sports fans. I’m going to share your blog with her.


    • Exactly, and I thank you for supporting your son. I was sitting next to a woman at the first concert after the contract was signed, and she was sniffing at the green hankies (which I had helped pass out). “Oh, are we going to have THAT again”? Well lady, if it weren’t for THAT, none of us would have been at that concert.


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